When South African runner Oscar Pistorius used artificial legs with carbon-fiber blades to reach the 400-meter semifinals at the recent Olympic Games, he amazed and inspired a worldwide audience.
But for fellow disabled athletes such as Katie Holloway of Lake Stevens, what Pistorius accomplished was particularly thrilling and profoundly meaningful.
“I don’t really know him personally, but I’ve met him and know him as a representative of Paralympics, of people with physical disabilities and of athletes in general,” said the 26-year-old Holloway, a 2004 graduate of Lake Stevens High School. “He’s classy, he’s respectful, and he’s everything you’d want in a person who’s representing you as a fellow athlete.”
Holloway and Pistorius share a similar disability. Both were born with fibular hemimelia, which is the absence of the fibula, the smaller of the two bones in the lower leg. Cruel as it sounds, doctors recommend amputating the foot and ankle, usually in infancy, and fitting the individual with a prosthesis, which allows for a more normal lifestyle, including the chance to participate in sports.
Pistorius has excelled in track and field as a double amputee. Holloway, who had only her right foot amputated, is a member of the United States national team in sitting volleyball and is in London for the 2012 Paralympics, which begin Wednesday.
Watching Pistorius run earlier this month “gave me such a special feeling because you feel a part of him and a part of what he’s doing,” Holloway said. “You’re thinking, ‘I may not get (to the Olympics) like him, but I know that he’s representing us well.’”
Holloway might have a chance to chat with Pistorius again at the upcoming Paralympics, where he will compete in the same stadium and be a huge favorite to win multiple gold medals. For Holloway, meanwhile, this year’s trip to London follows a similar journey to Beijing for the 2008 Paralympics, where her team received the silver medal after losing to China in the title match.
Four years ago, the American sitting volleyball players were clear underdogs to the Chinese, so their runner-up finish was hardly a shock.
“The way I looked at it going into Beijing was, ‘I’ll be happy with a silver because I know we’re not (at the same level as the Chinese) yet,” Holloway recalled. But afterward, she went on, “I was definitely miserable. It was the worst feeling in the world. It wasn’t that we’d won the silver, it was that we’d lost the gold.”
Stung by that defeat, “I’ve literally dedicated the last four years of my life to volleyball,” said Holloway, who moved her primary residence to Edmond, Okla., site of the team’s training center. “For me as an athlete, the Paralympics is what I’ve been working for. And it’s so built up in me that I don’t know if I can survive if we don’t win gold. That’s how badly I want it.”
As a younger girl, the 6-foot-3 Holloway played traditional volleyball, but basketball was her primary sport. Despite using a prosthesis against able-bodied players, she was good enough to earn a four-year scholarship to play basketball at California State University-Northridge, an NCAA Division I program.
It was in the spring of her sophomore season at Northridge that Holloway was introduced to sitting volleyball. She joined the U.S. national team and traveled with the squad that summer to Roermond, Netherlands, for the World Championships. Two years later she was in Beijing, and in 2010 she again participated at the World Championships in Edmond.
The U.S. placed fifth at the 2006 World Championships, and second at both the 2008 Paralympics and 2010 World Championships. Always, it seems, the Chinese are the team in the way.
“They’re the only team that we haven’t beaten yet in international competition,” Holloway said.
The Americans will get another chance in London. The U.S. and China are in the same pool and face each other in the opening match. Later, of course, there could be another showdown in the gold-medal finale.
Holloway and her teammates traveled to Holland about two weeks ago for training and practice matches, and arrived in London on Sunday. The opening ceremonies are on Wednesday and the match with China is Friday. The gold-medal match is Sept. 7.
The tournament “is going to be a battle,” Holloway said. “But we’re capable of (winning), I do know that. … Anything can happen, but I’m confident.”
Holloway earned an undergraduate degree in sociology, and recently received a master’s degree in therapeutic recreation as well as her certification as a therapeutic recreation specialist. She is exploring career options, but wants to use her education and training to work with disabled people in sports and recreational settings.
Looking ahead, the 2016 Paralympics will be in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Holloway is unsure if she will participate, but if she does, there’s a chance she will compete in rowing, a sport she took up recently as part of her training for volleyball.
But for now her focus is on London and the chance to claim perhaps the greatest prize in all of sports — a gold medal.
Winning in London “would mean everything to me,” Holloway said. “I fought for a long time against who I was as a person. Being a female with a disability, being tall and being teased, I fought all that for so long. And I hated it.
“Even today, I’m still growing. I’m still getting there. I’m still a work in progress because it takes time to erase 20 years of not embracing those things. For me, a gold medal would mean that I’ve accomplished the best that I can with the person I am. Because this sport is unique to me as a person more than basketball ever was.”